TOCCOA, Ga. — As Paul Garrison looks back over a half century of ministry, he sees how the Lord has fulfilled all of his childhood ambitions.
With a smile, the Toccoa pastor explains that when he was a toddler, he wanted to be a garbage collector, just like those men he would watch from his window each week. In time, his ambition changed to being a firefighter and later a heart surgeon.
“Looking back, I realized God had fulfilled all three of those childhood desires in a way I would have never dreamed by calling me into ministry,” Garrison said with a chuckle. “I became a garbage man to help people get the garbage out of their lives, a firefighter to keep them from the fires of hell, and a heart surgeon to help them change their hearts.”
Garrison is now completing his 50th year in ministry, the past 34 of which have been served at Hill Street Baptist Church in this far northeast Georgia town near the border of South Carolina.
The 66-year-old, widely known in the region from his radio and television ministries, recognizes that the Lord had prepared him to be a pastor from his earliest days.
“When I was 5 years old, I would gather all my stuffed animals on the bed and preach to them,” he said. “I’d call on them to come forward to accept Christ. I’d say, ‘if you’re with a group, they’ll wait on you.’”
By the time he was 15, Garrison was serving as minister of music at Jackson Hill Baptist Church where he stayed until he moved to Texas 7 ½ years later to attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. That’s where he received a Master of Divinity to complement his bachelor’s degree from Mercer University.
Being a young teen in charge of a church’s music ministry had its drawbacks.
“I would have to ask my mother first if she could drive me before I could schedule choir practice,” he said, laughing. “I started out as minister of music and two years later I added minister of education. I like to joke that I did everything in the church, even WMU, until they found out it was a women’s organization and they fired me.”
Garrison has left a trail of changed lives across Texas and Georgia over the past five decades.
Georgia Baptist Mission Board records show 618 baptisms at Hill Street alone since he arrived as pastor. The records show 50 to 60 baptisms per year over several of those years.
In addition to his ministry, Garrison, a potter, molds clay into beautiful creations that he sells in his shop in downtown Toccoa.
It’s lost on no one who has watched Garrison that he does the same thing on his potter’s wheel that the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah witnessed and wrote about in his day — clay being molded and shaped in the same way that God molds and shapes people.
“Paul is a very humble, kind man,” said Mike Blount, missions strategist in the Tugalo Baptist Association. “He loves people and has a compassionate heart. He has been faithful through the years and serves people with eternity in mind. Ministry has its highs and lows, but Paul has steadily and faithfully discharged his duties as a pastor, reaching our community for Christ.”
Garrison served on staff at Peoria Baptist Church in Peoria, Texas and B.H. Carroll Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, before returning to Georgia where he served as pastor at Taylorsville Baptist Church in Taylorsville, Ga. He arrived at Hill Street in 1989, a post from which he also has served the broader Georgia Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Convention. He has been a member of the Georgia Baptist Executive Committee, The Christian Index Board of Trustees, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Board of Trustees..
“There have been difficulties over the 50 years,” Garrison said, “but the joys have outweighed the bad times. My greatest joy has been seeing people saved, and that includes my own children and grandchildren.”
Garrison and his wife, Lisa, love having all their children and grandchildren as members of Hill Street. After more than three decades in Toccoa, he said, the entire congregation has come to feel like immediate family.”
“One of the joys of a long pastorate is that you’re able to get to know the people, and they get to know you,” Garrison said. “I’ve been able to lead people to the Lord, perform their marriage ceremonies, and be there when their children were born. That’s always a blessing.”
Hill Street is serving a section of Toccoa that has changed drastically. The working-class families who once were the core of the neighborhood have moved away. Their once pristine homes have decayed. Drugs and alcohol have taken hold. Pit bulls patrol residential properties.
The congregation considered following the outmigration, like other churches that have moved to more affluent neighborhoods. But church members decided to stay put, recognizing the importance of reaching this community. It’s tough ministry in a tough neighborhood, the pastor said.
Health challenges haven’t deterred Garrison from his mission. He underwent back surgery a year ago to repair deteriorated discs that made it difficult for him to walk. That’s on top of Stage 3 liver failure that he’s now fighting through.
“He is a powerful preacher and compassionate leader,” said Andy Childs, a pastor wellness catalyst for the Mission Board. “His graceful tenacity through numerous health challenges is a beautiful example of genuine faith. I am incredibly grateful for his consistent encouragement and powerful example.”